ME officials close to land use agreement for protecting rural wilderness

Maine officials are close to finalizing a land use agreement that supporters said would protect one of the most rural corners of the country from overdevelopment years after environmentalists raised concerns about McMansions rising in the area.

The land use plan is an outgrowth of a yearslong debate about a large development once planned for Maine’s remote North Woods area. Timber company Weyerhaeuser once planned to build two resorts and about 1,000 home lots there, but scrapped the idea in 2019, citing economic concerns.

State officials then began a new public process focused on steering growth in the area toward existing service centers such as Greenville and Rockwood, which are small communities more than 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of Portland.

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The proposed planning document would rezone hundreds of acres owned by Weyerhaeuser. The proposal “protects important habitat” and “minimizes interference with natural resource based activities such as forestry, agriculture, and recreation,” the Maine Land Use Planning Commission said in public documents.

“The goal was to obtain input about what types of development would be suitable in certain areas and to ensure adequate protection for resources of importance to the community,” said Stacie Beyer, acting executive director of the Land Use Planning Commission.

Forest near Moosehead Lake, located just outside Rockwood, Maine. The heavily forested area is the subject of a large land agreement close to being finalized.

Forest near Moosehead Lake, located just outside Rockwood, Maine. The heavily forested area is the subject of a large land agreement close to being finalized. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

The planning commission said its goal is to have the final plan adopted by the end of the year. It’s on the commission’s agenda for the Dec. 14. The development of the plan began in 2020, months after Weyerhaeuser pulled the plug on the former plan to build home lots and resorts.

Weyerhaeuser sees the project as a chance for the community to map out its economic future, said Chris Fife, a company spokesperson.

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Weyerhaeuser owns more than a million acres of timberlands in the U.S., including in northern New England and West Virginia. The company has pledged not to propose any large scale developments for the area before the end of the year and has none planned beyond then, Fife said.

“Communities like Greenville and Jackman, those are really important to us. Trying to make sure those communities can not only survive but thrive, and we see this process as part of that,” Fife said.

Environmentalists have characterized the planning process as a chance to steward the future of the sparsely populated corner of the state situated around Moosehead Lake. The region is popular with hunters, fishermen, campers and hikers, and is a beloved ecotourism destination in northern New England.

The planning agreement is a chance to make sure that it remains that way, said Melanie Sturm, forest and wildlife director with the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

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“The attraction for it being a destination is its natural resources and its open spaces and its scenic beauty. Any land management decisions could affect the character of the destination,” Sturm said.

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